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A Brilliant New Novel Interrogates Grad School, America, And The Art Of The Scam

Books

Talking with author Lucy Ives about 'Loudermilk,' the weirdness of 2003, and the problem with Paris Hilton

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: It was 2003 in America, and the revolution was streaming online, comprising sex tapes filmed in phosphorescent-green night vision and starring the kind of people who wore trucker hats and extremely low-slung jeans. It was the year President George W. Bush started a war in Iraq and quickly declared his mission had been accomplished. It was a year of petty victories and history grinding into gear again. It was—it is—the year of Loudermilk.

This cutting, sparkling new novel from Lucy Ives is set in Crete, a fictitious Midwestern town that plays host to The Seminars, only the most esteemed MFA program in the country. Arriving there fresh from graduating SUNY Oswego are two unlikely best friends: the Adonis-like Troy Augustus Loudermilk, and his petite, saturnine friend, Harry Rego. Loudermilk is ostensibly at the program to study poetry, but his brilliant work is all written by Harry. This isn't to say that Loudermilk shouldn't be seen as an artist, more that his art is of a less literary nature: Loudermilk's is the art of the scam.

As Ives tells the story of Loudermilk and Harry, and the assorted people they encounter on campus (look out, especially, for a scammer of a different sort, Anton Beans), it becomes clear that she is telling the story of art, of self-invention, of libertines, of culture, of America. Needless to say, things get dark. And yet, it never gets so dark that you can't see what's right in front of you, in all of its tragic hilarity: the truth of what America is at its very worst and its very best—which, as it turns out, are pretty much the same thing.

Below, I talk with Ives about how she came up with the idea for Loudermilk, why 2003 was such a significant time, and why Paris Hilton is a harbinger of apocalypse.

What was the beginning of this novel?
With this novel and my last novel, it was something that was a little beyond my control, or at least my conscious mind was not saying, Let's write a novel. I became obsessed—in the case of Impossible Views of the World, with the first person narrator; and in the case of Loudermilk, with the relationship Harry and Loudermilk have.

Originally—probably in 2008—I wanted to write a novel about a guy who has a teaching position at a prestigious East Coast university. It doesn't matter which one. He's a terrible person, and he's a lowlife, and he sleeps with his students. He's writing a novel about these two idiots who scam their way into an MFA in the Midwest. I think I wrote about 40,000 words of this framing narrative; as I was writing it, I realized that I only cared about the novel that the character was writing. That's the weird place that this book comes from, from an attempt to make another work of fiction that I wasn't as invested in.

I was interested in the idea of someone who's an artist whose main way of doing their art is not to make art themselves, but to control other people. That's how I understand Loudermilk, as someone who is, in fact, an artist himself, but he's an artist without a medium. Or, his medium is social relationships. He's also, in some ways, a very crude practitioner, and in order to craft the kinds of social dynamics he desires, he needs to deceive other people.

Your last novel was set in a pseudo Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this is set in a pseudo writer's workshop, like the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What do you think it is about not actually dealing with a real place that allows you to get closer to a kind of truth?
It's easy to mistake me for some of the female characters in some of the things that I write, but I'm not really a person who writes autobiographically in fiction. I think that if I were trying to write about real institutions, I would get very bogged down in details. There's something about fiction that allows you to talk about what you know without having to make sure that it can be verified. I think that a claim like that sounds a little politically suspect, but there's a way in which we make up a lot of things when we remember what has happened to us.

I have a tendency to see these artificial places and know who's there when I'm writing fiction. I find that I know very little about real people. I don't know what made my professors or friends in school tick—I speculate, but I really don't know. With fictional characters, I do know. I know everything about their lives, which is really strange. The fiction is interesting to me because it is a space in which you can know what you can't know in so-called real life. With fiction, you can kind of say everything.

This is a very American novel; Loudermilk is essentially American in so many ways. And he enters an MFA program, which is an American invention. And the novel is set in the year 2003, which is a pivotal year in modern American history, the year that Bush said the Iraq War was a "mission accomplished." Loudermilk really had me confronting the idea of what it means to be successful, to get approval, to feel validated, and to produce anything meaningful in America, and how so many of these victories feel so petty and empty. What was it like, when writing, to constantly be interrogating this idea of America?
In a way, this goes back to your first question about where the novel comes from. I'm a nerd. I liked being a student when I was a young person, and I liked to have my stationery and do well on tests, make flash cards, things like that. When I graduated from high school, I had the sense that hard work pays off and the whole American Dream thing, and that if I continued to be a person who was attentive and oriented to details, then things would be great. Also, [I thought] that when I went to college, I would be going into a space where everyone else had the same kinds of values, that we would all be studious and earnest and in awe of the greatness of artists of the past and things like that.

And that's exactly what you found! [laughs]
That's exactly what I found! It was really beautiful and everything has been beautiful since. [laughs] Well, things didn't turn out like that. Without going into too much detail, essentially, the kinds of teaching that you encounter when you get into a university are different. The institution is a source of power. So, the ways that students and teachers behave are sometimes constrained by that, especially if they're trying to get more agency for themselves.

You mentioned the petty victory in Iraq, which is just… everything about that was false. To me, as a person who was just becoming an adult, there was September 11th, which was terrifying and destabilizing and changed my understanding of what history is and where we were in history. I had read Francis Fukuyama's book, I was coming to consciousness during Clinton's presidency, and I had a certain sense of what American imperialism was, and that changed really dramatically. The invasion of Iraq in Spring of 2003, was, I think… there are many disturbing things that have happened in history, but for me, as a young person, this was the most disturbing thing.

I was very disturbed by people's nonchalance about it. I was living in Boston at the time. The bombings in Baghdad would be broadcast on CNN at night, and there was a bank in Harvard Square that had a TV that would just play them over and over. People would stand there and watch them. It was so dystopian; I just couldn't believe that this was happening.

My personal experience of that time was of a time when things had really gone off the rails. There were many bad things that the U.S. government had done, but I just couldn't believe that this was happening. It made me look at what was happening with other institutions differently. I felt like, if the New York Times or the Washington Post or Vanity Fair, if these major publications can become sites for propaganda, what am I seeing in the classroom? What are the values we're working with? How are they advantageous to certain parties and disadvantageous to others?

At the time, I didn't really come to any conclusions, again, this is that problem of real life not lending itself to interpretation. In the context of a novel, I can go back and imagine that there's a way in which a style of poetry that is valued, privileged in a given classroom, tells us something about the way that public address is being imagined in the U.S. during this period of time. This has something to do with people's psychology and their experiences more generally, but also, seeing the institution as a kind of space that doesn't necessarily resist. It's a space that does something else.

This is what I wanted to talk about: How is the institution a kind of microcosm for other things? The seminars aren't a real place; Crete, which is the town in Iowa [where Loudermilk is set], isn't a real place. Even the U.S. that this takes place in isn't the real U.S. It's a version of the U.S. I wanted to try to nest all of these things together, even if it's fake or a guess, to try to show the connection—and how art is a way to see things being connected that so often appear not to be moving in concert with one another in a way that we can interpret.

That's kind of the best description that I can give of my orientation to the real time and real place in the fiction. I keep wanting to make clear that it's a kind of bizarro version, always. I want to keep it from being an attempt to speak about the real place because there's so much information that I'm missing. I only have my own point of view to work from, so I try to go to the strangest parts of that point of view, but it's still limited.

One of the other questions this novel grapples with is how we value art, and the selling of art and the artist, and what is art's role in driving capitalism. One way in which Loudermilk is actually an artist is because of how much he understands how he'll be able to sell himself. This book takes place in 2003, but now, in 2019, the role of the artist in adding value to their art by promoting themselves in a really transactional way, via likes and favorites, makes the whole system feel that much more transparent. What do you think about art in the time of social media? And this might be my way of asking: When are you going to write a novel about social media?
In a way, Loudermilk is a novel about social media. It's just social media before [it existed]. Loudermilk is so elastic, he's prescient, and I do have the sense that he understood what was coming; that he saw the author as an avatar way before the current iteration of that format.

What do I think about now? I feel people are engaged around writing in a way that I can't say is terrible. I am probably a little bit in denial about the quantification of approval. It's a style of metric that keeps changing and keeps evolving, and my own goal, or what I want to do during the time that I draw breath, is sort of different. I don't feel terribly engaged by that. My way of doing things is mainly about developing relationships with people.

I think something that's coincided with the ubiquity of social media is a desire to know what's real or not, and a stronger than ever fascination with the idea of the scam—particularly when people aren't really getting hurt, when it's institutions that are getting hurt. And that's probably because we're starting to understand that institutions are meaningless, but that they're all we have. And yet, people are so terrified of existing outside of the power structure; the people who really feel like they were set up to succeed within it, are the most terrified to exist outside of it. It's why this country is the way it is, and it was like this when Alexis de Tocqueville came here, and it was like this in 2003, and it's a really big mindfuck, and thank you for contributing to that narrative! [laughs]

But also, the scammer plays into the idea of the libertine, a concept you discuss at length in Loudermilk's afterword. In 2003, so much of what Americans were being told at that time was the idea that we were hated for our freedoms and liberalism, but that was so deceptive, and not really an accurate representation of what it was to be an American. In Loudermilk, that can be seen in something as simple as how the women are dressing, including exposing their "whittled hip bones."
When the kitten heel came back in late 2001-2002, I remember thinking, This is bad, this means something bad. At that time, I thought, Okay, here's an image of a woman where the woman is going to have more difficulty moving. And the whittled hip bones, it's like telling women: "You don't have to have a corset, you just can't have any flesh on your body, and also please expose those parts of your body so we know you don't have any." Paris Hilton was a real person, who had a body that somehow conformed to these very strange requirements. I did watch a bunch of The Simple Life, and I thought about that; plus, her and Nicole Richie's relationship is a little bit of a Loudermilk and Harry relationship. We won't read too much into that, even though we know who the brains of that operation is [laughs]! However, I did not watch One Night in Paris. Maybe that'll be for after the novel comes out, I'll treat myself to that, but I don't know if that's really something I want to see.

Well, not unlike the bombing in Baghdad, it was also filmed in night vision. It actually is sort of an interesting, horrific duality, which I'm thinking about right now… because I did watch One Night in Paris.
I think Paris Hilton is an interesting example of the female libertine.

And a Trump supporter, also.
Yeah, it's terrifying. I think there are different ideas about what the rebel is for; what the type of person who engages in this kind of socially unacceptable excess is for; what the function they're serving is. If you think about Paris Hilton in this way—what was she for, what was her role symbolically in culture at the time—she was a spectacle; she was something to look at. She was, in theory, a sexually liberated woman, but she was also awful. She was about the horror of a woman run amok, and there was entertainment value in it, but there was also a justification in it for a kind of reactionary social politics. And, if Loudermilk is a libertine, he is devaluing the idea of freedom a little bit. And I think that's what American libertines do. They don't exist to advance progressive politics, they essentially exist to say, freedom isn't that great, the only thing it's good for is sex or excessive spending or eating. And I don't know if we should be so drawn to those figures, really.

Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World is available for purchase here.

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